Opinion: Parents value social, emotional learning. But it’s under siege

While parents may be wary of the term social and emotional learning as a result of all the political hyperbole, surveys repeatedly show most applaud its tenets — developing character and kindness and teaching life skills. (File photo)

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While parents may be wary of the term social and emotional learning as a result of all the political hyperbole, surveys repeatedly show most applaud its tenets — developing character and kindness and teaching life skills. (File photo)

Program seeks to improve student empathy, problem-solving and self-regulation

Social and emotional learning turned into a flashpoint in school board races in several counties, including Cherokee, Coweta and Forsyth. It seems an unlikely target as the concept has been around for nearly three decades. It grew out of a realization that students learned more when they could manage emotions, develop healthy relationships and make sound decisions.

Yet, school board candidates are arguing that social and emotional learning is a liberal plot to reshape students’ mindsets, and behaviors. At Cherokee County board meetings, protesting residents wear T-shirts that proclaimed, “I don’t co-parent with the government.”

The Coweta County School System felt compelled to announce in bold letters on its fact-checking page: “Social and emotional learning is not a ‘secret’ way to promote Critical Race Theory or other such concepts in our schools.”

A site aimed at Forsyth parents warns: “Social emotional learning curriculum uses specific phrases and words to sound harmless for our children. However, SEL is used to mold your child’s thoughts, values, and beliefs apart from your parental control.”

The hostility toward social and emotional learning has been cultivated by political operatives who hope to drive voters to the polls in Tuesday’s Georgia primaries and November’s general election. They maintain it encourages students to obsess about race and gender identity and deride the program as “the latest big education fad” and “faux psychology.”

While parents may be wary of the term “social and emotional learning” as a result of the political hyperbole, surveys repeatedly show they applaud its tenets. A 2021 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found parents across political ideologies agree with what this type of learning attempts to teach kids: how to set goals and achieve them, approach challenges in a positive way, believe in themselves and their abilities, navigate social situations, respond ethically, understand, express and control their emotions and stand up for and empathize with other people.

The problem, according to the Fordham report, is that “SEL terminology is nebulous, jargony, and off-putting to parents who want schools to focus on the three R’s or who worry that it might be code for liberal indoctrination. If the Common Core wars taught us anything, it’s that mishandling communication about education reforms can derail good intentions.”

As with Common Core, the attacks on social and emotional learning may owe in part to parents never getting a full sense of the program’s purpose and its research foundation. Adam Tyner, author of the Fordham report, found school district explanations often use too much education jargon.

“Districts need to be really clear what they are doing so parents can give feedback on what is actually happening rather than on what they saw on Facebook about something happening way across the country,” said Tyner in an interview this week.

That some parents embrace Facebook assertions about the dangers of social and emotional learning underscores the power of social media, the polarization of politics today and our increasing cynicism, said Tyner. “The parents may have a distrust of public education and teachers in the first place and believe that something might be going on in their schools and they just don’t know it.”

Tyner said it’s also possible that there is a values mismatch between what districts emphasize in their social and emotional learning programs and what their communities want. He suggested discussions between school leaders and upset parents — outside of the grandstanding that goes on at school board meetings — could avoid a politicization of the issue.